A traveling bookclub

Savannah Morning News

August 6, 2017

Using my midtown Savannah home as a radius, I can think of at least six neighbors and/or friends who belong to book clubs. Some gather at night in revolving residences of the members. Others have more permanent meeting places, such as a “barn” in Wilmington Island. Still others meet at individual churches and/or synagogues.

Most read the same book. But there are variations. I know of one group that meets at the Bull Street branch of Savannah’s Live Oak Public Library where the members read books from a chosen monthly theme: young adult, biographical, memoirs, fiction, historic fiction, science fiction, mystery.

My favorite group used to meet at Savannah’s teeny-weeny Ola Wyeth branch library on Bay Street. Those people, a bit more libertarian perhaps or maybe a group of contrarians who don’t play well with others, read what they darn well pleased. Each showed up with a book and a five- or 10-minute report of their book of choice and held forth. No room for disagreement or discussion there.

There are other common themes to book clubs. They seem to involve wine, dinner. snacks, chatter, gossip, phone photos, laughter, sociability.

How one joins a group seems just as random. It could be as accidental as talking to someone in line at the farmers’ market, frequenting a bookstore (a great place to start if you’re new in town), or chit-chatting with your neighbor while walking a dog.

They also seem to break down according to gender. The groups I know of are mostly women, which is curious.  But my cousin Melvin and his wife Karla belong to a mixed group and a friend named Tom goes to a men-only group. So there you go. All of which reminds me of a joke sent by a friend – a woman – who belongs to a group of bookies in Chicago. It goes like this:

“One morning a husband returns to the cabin after several hours of fishing and decides to take a nap. Since it’s such a beautiful day his wife decides to take the boat out. She motors out a short distance, anchors, and reads her book. Along comes a game warden in his boat. He pulls up alongside the woman and says, ‘Good morning, ma’am, what are you doing?’

“’Reading a book,’” she replies, thinking, ‘Isn’t that obvious?’

“’You’re in a restricted fishing area,’” he informs her.

“’I’m sorry, officer, but I’m not fishing. I’m reading.”

“’But you have all the equipment. I’ll have to write you up a ticket.”

“’For reading a book?”

“’You’re in a restricted fishing area.”

“’But officer, I’m not fishing, I’m reading.”

“’Yes, but you have all the equipment. For all I know you could start at any moment. I’ll have to write you up a ticket and you’ll have to pay a fine.”

“’If you do that I’ll have to charge you with sexual assault.”

“’But I haven’t even touched you,’” says the game warden.

“’That’s true, but you have all the equipment. For all I know you could start at any moment.’”

“’Have a nice day, ma’am,’ said he, who left immediately.”

Gender generalizations aside, I seem to have hooked up with a bunch of people – women, as it turns out – who like to travel. This can make it tricky to decide on a meeting day. It can also introduce flexibility. Before I met them they traveled to Charleston after reading, “Invention of Wings,” where they took a Grimke sisters tour, and Harris Neck, to dovetail with “Praying for Sheetrock.”

Our book this month? Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Homeward, Angel.” This year’s road trip? Asheville, N.C. If we didn’t always reach consensus about earlier books, we did this time: touring Wolfe’s childhood home in downtown Asheville was much easier than reading his 544-page book. Full confession: unless you are a Proust scholar, a fan of Dickens or a history major, most of us are not used to this kind of writing. The paragraphs are long, the vocabulary vast, the plot sketchy. Get to the point, we think. The America he wrote about – in the 1930s – was another place, another time. If I say I sat down 25 times to read it, I probably sat down 50 times. There is a thread – a rhythm – but it takes concentration and time to find it. It sprawls.

The Home, on the other hand, is a tour de force. It is the boarding house that Wolfe’s ambitious, business-oriented, ahead-of-her-time mother established and ran, sometimes at the expense of her children. If she could rent out a bed she would. There were times Wolfe, the last of eight children, had to be creative to find a place to sleep.

From a film and/or the tour at the House, we met Edward Aswell, Wolfe’s second editor and the father of Savannah’s Mary Aswell Doll, a professor at SCAD. We heard about Wolfe’s propensity to wander, to travel across country, to sail for Europe, some seven times by my count.

But mostly we learned about one another. We exchanged stories of siblings, our own childhood homes, our many odd jobs. We laughed at an Asheville business that advertised, “Helping your dog with separation anxiety; no dogs please.” We ate trout, we drank wine, we laughed out loud, we looked for bears (pretty common in Asheville), we reveled in the cool mornings, we argued Wolfe, we debated about our next book. In the end we all agreed on one thing. As difficult as the book is to read, it stands head and shoulders above “Genius,” the recent movie about Wolfe (and his editor Maxwell Perkins), even if Jude Law, who played the author, did look pretty tasty.